Mt Dixon trip report – A lesson in risk management
“There is only one problem” Alan yelled to me over the noise of the helicopter as it lifted off in a crescendo of noise and wind.
“Whats that Al?”
“We forgot the food!”
Fuck fuck fuck!!!!!! I cursed to myself while standing there in the snow. We had just landed at Plateau hut, 2200m elevation in the Mt Cook National Park. It had been an eventful day with a great deal of ‘hurry up and wait’ carrying on. We had come to Mt Cook 4 days before to attempt a route known as the Grand Traverse (GT). Unfortunately our trip coincided with the heaviest rain and snow falls over a 2 day period for the entire year. We had made an attempt on the GT during a short break in the weather. We tried to make it to Gardiner Hut on the Hooker Glacier but got caught out in strong winds and heavy rain 100m below the hut, and could not find a way through the crevasses to access Pudding Rock (atop of which is situated Gardiner Hut). We ended up spending a very wet, cold, character building night in a snow cave and retreating the next morning. (read about that here).
So with three days left only we were trying to salvage something from the trip, and had decided to fly into Plateau and attempt Mt Tasman. We only had one day to climb, Friday 4th January. I needed to be back in Christchurch to pick up my wife Stephanie on Saturday 5th then drive to Nelson that evening to Sea Kayak for three days in the Abel Tasman National Park. We had been at Mt Cook airport since 12PM that day waiting for the chopper flight to Plateau. We were stuck in a queue behind a number of site seeing trips and groups of mountaineering courses flying in. But by 2pm once it was our turn, the weather had turned and we were told the flights were stopped. So we retreated the 2km back to Unwin lodge, and were called at 3pm to be told the weather had cleared and we needed to be back in 5 minutes to fly in. In our mad scramble the bag of food got left behind.
So there we were standing on the snow outside Plateau Hut, with our packs slung over our shoulders looking at each other wondering two things. The first was; whose fault was it to forget the food? the second; what are we going to eat the next thee days? Fortunately Alan is not one to hold grudge’s and luckily we had shared a flight with two Australian climbers, James and Jason, who very kindly immediately offered to feed us that evening.
Listening to the radio ‘sched’ at 7pm that evening in the hut was disappointing. Friday was forecast for a freezing level of 1800m (a good sign) but with morning showers and high winds expected to develop throughout the day. Saturday was forecast for a very high freezing level (above 3500m) and winds from 75km to gale force developing at 3000m. The whole of are looked like it was the middle of the winter. There had been so much snow in the past few days everything was covered. We briefly discussed a shorter climb, possibly the East Ridge of Mt Dixon. Mt Dixon at 3004m, is New Zealand’s 23rd highest peak. It sits on the main divide, very close to its illustrious neighbor Aoraki/Mt Cook at 3754m.
I awoke at 12:30AM to do a quick weather check. It was slightly cloudy with some strong wind gusts. I went back to bed with the plan to check again in 2 hours time.
The next thing I knew it was 7AM!! Shit, I had slept in. I jumped up and immediately saw the conditions looked great. No clouds and no wind. I woke Alan and we set about getting prepared.
The previous evening we had managed to find some hut food (food left in the hut by other parties free for others to consume). This consisted of some oats, milk powder, sugar and some tea bags. The perfect breakfast! The only problem was we had no food to take on the climb. “No worries Grant” smiled Alan as he pulled a small jar of peanut butter from his pack. From past experience I know Alan has a perverse love of peanut butter and eats it by the spoonful like ice cream. At least he would be happy for the day. I settled on the fact it would be a long day without food for me but I could enjoy some nice drinks of water from my 1l Nalgene and a good luck at the view if I got hungry.
We set off at 8AM, roped up for glacier travel and headed off for the East Ridge. We quickly realized we were not the first on the route that morning and followed a line of footsteps on the snow. (They were from a couple of Englishmen who had set off at 6AM). We happily followed their tracks for the first hour up the grand plateau, heading for the wall of the East Ridge. We had decided to cut off the lower portion of the East Ridge to save time, and head up close to the icefalls coming down the east face and climb one of the steep couloirs onto the ridge itself.
We soon came to the point at the base of the face where the English pair had started to climb up. We decided to head further along the base of the wall still, closer to the icefalls. This was hard going in the deep snow, but shortly we spotted a steep, icy couloir which looked in good condition.
Still roped up for glacier travel, without any discussion, we started climbing. What it looked like from below turned out to be true, the couloir was in perfect condition, It steepened to vertical for a short section and we climbed confidently up still roped together and without placing protection. It was immensely enjoyable. I forgot about every other thing in the world as I focused completely on my next axe placement, my next crampon placement. In one short instance it made up the whole last few days of moraine bashing, freezing wet snow cave’s and wandering around Unwin lodge pretending to be a climber.
Eventually the angle eased off to steep snow and I kicked steps the remaining 150m to access the East ridge. From the grand plateau the east ridge looks like a mellow line, which you could jog up to reach the summit. I was therefore more than a little surprised when I reached it to find was a sharp icy knife-edge as you see in the photo below. I pretty quickly decided not to jog.
By climbing the couloir close to the icefalls we had saved a great deal of time and we bypassed the English climbers. Looking back further down the ridge we could see them coming up camel riding style, with one leg straddling either side of the ridge, dragging themselves along with their hands. Very hard on the testicles.
We climbed along the ridge for 30 minutes or so, until we reached the saddle where it steepens up for the summit slopes. In the saddle Alan eagerly opened his jar of peanut butter, dipped his ice axe in and scooped out an enormous ball and quietly munched it down like he was eating an ice cream. I watched in silent amazement. “Tastes like shit, its unsalted, here have some Grant” Alan offered. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry so declined the offer and had a swig of water.
The broad summit slopes seem to go forever and it was a slow plod. At times on an icy crust which shattered with each step and rained down like falling glass on the climber below. At other times in hard snow which we could confidently kick steps.
Close to the summit we once again found our way onto the final exposed summit ridge. This turned out to be the most exposed summit I have stood upon, and once again we inched very carefully across. I tried not to look down either side at the hundreds of meters of free fall that maybe a base jumper would appreciate however served to intensify my focus on not slipping as we had no protection in.
Once on top, I gladly sat down straddling the summit ridge with one leg each side. I pulled out an ice screw and sank it in between my legs and clipped the rope in. It was 12:30PM, 4.5 hours work to reach the top. “We made it – great work Grant”, called Alan cheerily. We took a photo of each other, chatted for a few minutes then very carefully stood up and began to retrace our steps.
The sun was intense as we started down and we soon realized it was going to be a slow descent. The integrity of the steps we had placed on the way up could no longer be trusted. The icy crust covering softer snow underneath would frequently break off and we would start to slide. My crampons were balling badly every second step requiring sharp whack with my axe to knock the snow out.
Slowly we worked our way down the broad summit slopes until we hit the ridge again. Here I preferred to down climb, whilst Alan came down front first. The ridge was exposed but straightforward in the morning when it was frozen. However now under the intense sun it was soft and slushy and a completely different experience.
We were about 100m from reaching the saddle when the accident happened. I suddenly heard Alan shout behind me “Grant, Grant Grant!!”. I turned around to see him falling headfirst down off the side of the ridge. It was so steep and he accelerated so quickly there was no way he could self arrest. He was headed off the North side of the ridge which had a huge drop off to the Freshfield (?)glacier below. It happened so fast I hardly had time to think. As were both roped together, the technique to stop this is for me to fall off the opposite side of the ridge to catch his fall. As I was down climbing facing into the slope I let my feet go and pushed myself down the south side as far as I could.
Time then went from very fast to almost standstill. I waited for the rope to come tight for probably less than a second, but it seemed like a longtime. ‘Am I far enough down the ridge? Am I going to get pulled over the top’ I thought to myself. Then the strain came on the rope, much heavier than I thought. It started pulling me up towards the lip of the ridge. ‘Fuckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk…please stop Alan, if I go over the top I am so fucked’ I screamed in my mind. He must have been a mind reader because then it stopped. The rope had bitten down hard into the snow further increasing the friction. I lay there, hanging onto the south side of the ridge, not daring to breath, the rope tight on my harness. I could not believe what had just happened.
Suddenly the weight came off the rope and I started to slide back down the face. I briefly panicked and kicked my crampons in to stop the slide. I then realized it was a good sign and it was Alan climbing back up the other side. “You OK?” I shouted. “Yes” came back the call. I crawled closer to the lip of the ridge and peered carefully over to see Alan looking up as he climbed back up. “Jeez that was close, thanks for saving me Grant” said Alan in his down to earth manner. “How did you manage that, did you jump off the other side?” “Yeah I did, bloody hell you scared the shit out of me!”. I took a quick photo of him.
We slowly and much more carefully continued down until we reached the saddle. I noticed blood in the snow where Alan had sliced open his wrist on his ice axe during the fall. Back on the saddle apart from a nasty looking gash which he covered with some tape, we were both physically none the worse for wear from the incident. Mentally I was a little shaken and could not stop thinking what would have happened if I had been pulled over the ridge also. I thought what would my body have looked like after falling that distance down. I thought about Stephanie and for a brief moment I knew what I was doing for ‘enjoyment’ was not justifiable. I had too much to lose to end it all on the east ridge of Mt Dixon. I felt a little sick.
We had some water on the saddle, I even had a small dip into the jar of peanut butter with my axe but did not enjoy the mouthful of oily unsalted peanuts, so reverted back to a gulp or two of water, content in the fact that I carry enough body fat to last a few days of this type of thing and it really is very good for me to go without food for awhile.
We then got back onto the exposed ridge and continued down. Now we had a decision to make, how to get off the ridge and back down to the glacier. The steep couloir and snow slopes we had climbed were by now too soft to descend safely. So we had to continue along the knife edge east ridge until we could find an easier way down. It was not appealing at all to have to keep climbing along this ridge with the snow so soft, however we had little choice. After the fall I was extra careful to inch my way along step by step.
We reached the top of a large buttress after sometime with a 50m vertical drop off to where the ridge continued below. We only had a single 50m rope, (enough for a 25m abseil when doubled up). We set up a sling around a large rock and abseiled down to the limit of the rope. There was nothing very suitable for an anchor to so I tapped my snow stake into the deep soft now. It went in too easily and I was not happy with so kicked some good steps to stand on, clipped the abseil lines to the anchor and shouted for Alan to come down. Once Alan arrived he promptly dug in his snow stake as well to back up mine then he belayed me while I down climbed another 20m until I found a large rock with a crack that took a cam. From here I could see we had come off the North side of the ridge, and had come down to the level of the lower ridge but we needed to do a 50m horizontal traverse over steep ground to get back onto it. Alan set-off on a great lead across the traverse, with three nuts for protection, kicking steps and some mixed moves on rock, he made the ridge and very soon I came across and joined him.
I then lead a short pitch over the exposed ridge and down a steep notch on the other side where I found another suitable rock anchor which I tied off onto. From here it looked like a steep but feasible abseil or down climb to the glacier, around 150m below. I fancied this option more than continuing along the hideously soft and exposed ridge.
When Alan arrived he also thought it could be possible to get down here. He set-off carefully down climbing the steep snow, until he ran out a full 50m to a solid belay point (a large rock which he had two cams in). He had placed three intermediate runners to protect me as I followed him down. From this point we accessed the steep snow slopes which lead directly to the glacier. We did two more pitches of down climbing, then carefully slip over the top of the deep schrund to arrive happily back on the grand plateau around 6pm. It was a huge relief to be back down safely. I took out the Sat phone and called Stephanie to tell her I would be in Christchurch tomorrow to meet her at the airport and we merrily chatted away as we followed our tracks back the one hour walk to Plateau Hut.
We arrived at 7PM, 11 hours on the go with 700ml of water and teaspoon of peanut butter, I strangely did not feel hungry at all but had a slight dehydration headache. I therefore conclude that I normally carry far too much food on climbs and will carry considerably less in the future.
After having sometime to analyse our climb, we made one big mistake which was leaving too late in the morning. For this route we should have left at 0300 – 0400 hours, and been on the summit around 8:30AM. Then we could have descended while the snow was still frozen. Alan has much more climbing experience than I do, and has climbed this route before but with much less snow on it. He thinks that a more realistic grading for the conditions and the couloir we climbed was more like 3 to 3+ (New Zealand grading system).
We arrived back to Plateau hut to a hive of activity as 16 climbers (50/50 guides and clients) were preparing to leave to climb Mt Cook that evening. The freezing levels were very high (over 3500m) so it definitely was not ideal conditions and with the large amount of snow in the area Alan commented on his concern about high avalanche risk.
Around 4AM we were woken by banging and crashing and two climbers returned to our bunk room. “you reach the summit already” I asked groggily in the dark. “No we just got avalanched on Zurbriggen’s ridge, I have hurt my chest and am having a hard time breathing an my partner has cut his face, we fell almost 200m, buried our rope, lost our axes, I can’t believe we are not dead”.
The two guys were very shaken up and had been through a very rough experience. Alan very quickly took control of the situation and handled it superbly. He contacted DOC on the radio to inform them we had two injured climbers in the hut and they may require a helicopter evacuation in the morning. We made them tea and chatted to them until first light when a chopper came into pick them up.
Seeing the extremely efficient and professional manner in which the DOC, Police and rescue staff handled this situation made me proud to be a kiwi. What an incredible job they did, after being roused at 4AM from a remote mountain hut, to having the injured guys out 3.5 hours later back safe and sound receiving the care they needed. Two days later they were all over the front pages of news papers in New Zealand (read that here). They were two very lucky guys, and maybe a good reminder to all of us to be careful in selecting routes when the conditions are not favourable.
By 8:00AM Alan and I were also back in Mt Cook Village. By 5PM Alan was back in Sydney and by 7PM I was in Motueka with Stephanie.
And the trip is but a memory. Thank fully one which every one concerned came back to tell the tale.